Values in tension (1)

I’ve been thinking a lot about values recently. I mean things like justice, peace, loyalty, family, courage, etc. etc. I think it’s super important to understand your values, to make good decisions for yourself and for the world, but it’s also easy for those values words to replace thinking. You can use the word in a sentence without really having to think through the ramifications of what it means in terms of actions in the real world.


The main thing to know is that values only mean anything when they’re in conflict.


Almost every aggressive dictator on the planet values peace, for example – what matters is how they prioritise it. What do they value more than peace, enough to trade peace in for? What do they value less than peace, enough to sacrifice in order to get peace? Your average warmonger genuinely wants peace, but not as much as they want the natural resources of the country they’re invading. In their ideal scenario, the other country would just capitulate and give them the resources. Peace and resources, perfect! But assuming that doesn’t happen, which value gets sacrificed?


So yeah, literally ignore anyone who tells you they value anything, unless you know how they rank it among other values.

McKinley ValentineThe Whippet #99

This is a great point, well made. The three things that I come across most frequently that people “believe in,” or “are in favour of,” are:

  • Peace (at any price?);
  • Equality (in all things, all the time, for all time?);
  • Freedom (to do anything?).

It feels like I’ve bumped into this idea a lot recently – most notably in the recent episode of Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast about difficult conversations, and then in The Whippet #99.

And it came up again this week at work in managing a couple of tricky relationships between colleagues: I value professionalism and efficiency and getting the job done… and I value being humane and understanding, being flexible and giving people the benefit of the doubt. I guess it’s easier to run a ruthlessly hard-nosed professional organisation or to run a peer-support group than to try to hold the values of both in tension in a single organisation. But it seems to me that judging where to draw the line between values and then helping everyone to live (or better, flourish) in the tension is one of the key jobs of leadership.

Seth points out that you can’t expect to be able to do this well in an emergency: the trust you need to bring people together over values in tension is a function of time, clarity and integrity.

The singer-songwriter Mark Stone summed it up like this: “Honest love is won from the struggle.”

One Reply to “Values in tension (1)”

  1. This is very true. Living in tension is so key to moving forward even though it sounds so counterintuitive. And as you say, it’s harder. I’m living with tensions like: Organisation AND Organic network; Central Vision vs Local Interpretation and much more. Good to be reminded that the tensions and difficulties this raises is OK! And when I long for a black/white world where all seems simpler it’s not necessarily a better solution.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...